Osteopathy is one of only two complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) that are regulated under UK law. The other is chiropractic.
Regulation works in much the same way as regulation for medical doctors.
By law, osteopaths must be registered with the General Osteopathic Council (GOsC).
The GOsC only accepts registration from practitioners who have a qualification in osteopathy that's recognised by the GOsC and who comply with their standards of practice.
Osteopaths are required to renew their registration each year. As part of this process, the GOsC checks to ensure they have the correct insurance, are meeting professional development requirements and remain in good health.
If you use an osteopath and they don't adhere to this standard of practice, you can complain to the GOsC. It has a duty to investigate the complaint.
The GOsC has a register of osteopaths, which you can use to find one in your local area.
Regulation aims to protect patient safety, but it doesn't mean there's scientific evidence that a treatment is effective.
What qualifications do osteopaths have?
Osteopaths complete a four- or five-year honours degree programme (bachelor's or master's), which involves at least 1,000 hours of clinical training. Some osteopaths are qualified to PhD level.
Osteopathy is generally regarded as a safe treatment, although you may experience minor side effects, such as:
- mild to moderate soreness or pain in the treatment area
These effects usually develop within a few hours of a session and typically get better on their own within a day or two.
In rare cases, serious complications have been linked to therapies involving spinal manipulation, including osteopathy. These include the tearing of an artery wall leading to a stroke, which can result in permanent disability or even death. These events usually occurred after spinal manipulation involving the neck.
These more serious complications of spinal manipulation are rare. Estimates of the rates of serious complications range widely, from one in several thousand to one in several million.
Your osteopath should explain the benefits and any potential risks associated with having treatment.
When it shouldn't be used
Osteopathy isn't recommended where there's an increased risk of damage to the spine or other bones, ligaments, joints or nerves.
Therefore, people with certain health conditions may not be able to have osteopathy. These conditions include:
Osteopathy is also not recommended if you're taking blood-thinning medicines, such as warfarin, having a course of radiotherapy or during pregnancy.